A Tortilla Is Like Life

A Tortilla Is Like Life

CAROLE M. COUNIHAN
Copyright Date: 2009
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/719811
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  • Book Info
    A Tortilla Is Like Life
    Book Description:

    Located in the southern San Luis Valley of Colorado, the remote and relatively unknown town of Antonito is home to an overwhelmingly Hispanic population struggling not only to exist in an economically depressed and politically marginalized area, but also to preserve their culture and their lifeways. Between 1996 and 2006, anthropologist Carole Counihan collected food-centered life histories from nineteen Mexicanas-Hispanic American women-who had long-standing roots in the Upper Rio Grande region. The interviews in this groundbreaking study focused on southern Colorado Hispanic foodways-beliefs and behaviors surrounding food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption.

    In this book, Counihan features extensive excerpts from these interviews to give voice to the women of Antonito and highlight their perspectives. Three lines of inquiry are framed: feminist ethnography, Latino cultural citizenship, and Chicano environmentalism. Counihan documents how Antonito's Mexicanas establish a sense of place and belonging through their knowledge of land and water and use this knowledge to sustain their families and communities. Women play an important role by gardening, canning, and drying vegetables; earning money to buy food; cooking; and feeding family, friends, and neighbors on ordinary and festive occasions. They use food to solder or break relationships and to express contrasting feelings of harmony and generosity, or enmity and envy. The interviews in this book reveal that these Mexicanas are resourceful providers whose food work contributes to cultural survival.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79518-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-XII)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. XV-2)
  5. 1 ‟I Did Do Something”: Food-Centered Life Histories in Antonito, Colorado
    (pp. 3-21)

    This book is based on food-centered life histories that I collected between 1996 and 2006 with Mexicanas in the small town of Antonito in the southern San Luis Valley of Colorado. Ninety percent of the population of Antonito identified themselves as Hispanic in the 2000 U.S. Census. They had deep roots in the Upper Rio Grande region and could point to Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and European ancestry. They were not “Mexican” or “Anglo” but part of a Hispanic cultural group spanning the geographic region from Santa Fe north to Antonito since the sixteenth century. I interviewed nineteen women about...

  6. 2 ‟The Stereotypes Have to Be Broken”: Identity and Ethnicity in Antonito
    (pp. 22-43)

    One of the most striking things I learned from the Hispanic women of Antonito is the diversity of their views. In 2000 Antonito had fewer than 900 inhabitants, and almost 800 of them claimed Hispanic identity on the U.S. Census. Yet in this small and predominantly monoethnic community, women’s stories revealed a notable variety of self-definitions. Different women used different terms to define their ethnic identities, and some changed their preferred terms over the course of their lives in response to changing social forces and political consciousness. They held strong opinions about terms they liked and did not like. They...

  7. 3 ‟Part of This World”: Meanings of Land and Water
    (pp. 44-70)

    The natural environment had rich significance for Antonito Mexicanos. As Peña (1998b, 11) has written, “Place . . . is a primary repository for human constructions of meaning and identity.” In the rural area surrounding Antonito, cultivated fields, vast expanses of wild llano, nearby mesas, distant mountains, and especially watercourses formed significant parts of people’s environment and held many meanings. The land was a place of both belonging and exclusion. It was a site of birth, death, home, family, and ancestors, yet also a reminder of dispossession and the struggle to survive.¹ It was a spiritually renewing locus of beautiful...

  8. 4 ‟Anything You Want Is Going to Come from the Earth”: The Traditional Diet
    (pp. 71-90)

    The older women of Antonito remembered a time when food production tied them to land and water. Monica Taylor encapsulated the traditional San Luis Valley food system when she cited her grandmother’s words: “Anything you want is going to come from the earth.” This chapter provides a historical overview of what came from the earth in Antonito and the surrounding agricultural hamlets from the 1930s to the recent past. Mexicanas’ food-centered life histories revealed close connections to the environment and deep roots in San Luis Valley places slowly weakening but enduring into the twenty-first century.

    In Antonito the climate is...

  9. 5 ‟We’ve Got to Provide for the Family”: Women, Food, and Work
    (pp. 91-113)

    Antonito women articulated their gender identity through stories of courtship, marriage, gender ideals, and work. Over several generations these women have been providers as well as nurturers. They have worked inside and outside the home and taken pride in their public and domestic contributions. They have benefited from the relatively flexible gender definitions of the Upper Rio Grande region stemming from “frontier conditions and low population” (Swadesh 1974, 178), as well as from longstanding patterns of seasonal male migration for work (Deutsch 1987).

    Throughout their history in thesiete condados, Mexicanas have made important contributions to the family economy. In...

  10. 6 ‟It’s a Feeling Thing”: Cooking and Women’s Agency
    (pp. 114-136)

    This chapter looks at a major part of women’s work—cooking—to examine their agency and power.¹ I defineagencyas purposive action expressing freedom. Following Antonio Gramsci, I see agency as the process of making a life and making a self.² It is the ability to have an impact on the world in multiple ways—sometimes resistant to power structures, sometimes complicit with them (Ahearn 2001, 113). Because it is about freedom, “agency is critical to the concept of cultural citizenship: it reflects the active role of Latinos and other groups in claiming rights” (Flores and Benmayor 1997, 12)....

  11. 7 ‟Meals Are Important, Maybe It’s Love”: Mexicano Meals and Family
    (pp. 137-151)

    When Janice DeHerrera said, “Meals are important, maybe it’s love,” she got to the heart of the meaning of Mexicano meals in Antonito—their role in fostering family attachments and values. Meals have long been recognized as significant spaces for the reproduction of family and culture. Several recent studies have noted a decline in U.S. family meals and significant negative correlations, particularly for children and adolescents, including poor nutrition, increased risk of substance abuse, lowered academic performance, and increased behavioral problems.¹ The nineteen women I interviewed in Antonito did not give evidence of waning family meals but on the contrary...

  12. 8 ‟It Was a Give-and-Take”: Sharing and Generosity versus Greed and Envy
    (pp. 152-167)

    Just as meals helped to construct the most basic family social unit, large feasts reinforced broad community relationships. Like many communities its size, Antonito was a complex network of interlocking relations of kinship, marriage, friendship, and enmity, often expressed through food. Sharing and generosity built relationships; stinginess, greed, and envy broke them. People expressed connection in the community through commensality, or eating together. They expressed enmity and rupture by refusing food and sometimes by bewitching it.

    These practices in Antonito reflected broader social exchange practices, beautifully described by Marcel Mauss inThe Gift(1967). Mauss discussed the New Zealand Maori...

  13. 9 ‟Come Out of Your Grief”: Death and Commensality
    (pp. 168-180)

    In the small town of Antonito, death tore apart the community, and people reknitted it with collective mourning, prayer, and commensality. As in many communities the world over, food played a significant role in rituals of death (Thursby 2006, 79). The preparation and consumption of customary foods reestablished a sense of normality, brought community members together, and gave them something to do (9). Death brought sadness, which food helped to alleviate, for, as Bakhtin has said, “sadness and food are incompatible.”¹ Furthermore, food was a key part of many rituals. Those surrounding death were examples of what Van Gennep (1960)...

  14. 10 ‟Give Because It Multiplies”: Hunger and Response in Antonito
    (pp. 181-191)

    Poverty and food insecurity were a threat not only to individuals but also to community ideals of equality and collective responsibility—ideals encapsulated in the words of Carmen Lopez: “The thing that the elderly people used to say is this, ‘Give because it multiplies.’ I really think that it happens.” The people I interviewed said that the poor did not go hungry for several reasons: there was a caring community; there was both government and private assistance; and the traditional diet was cheap, available, and nutritious.

    But poverty was widespread, jobs were hard to get, some people suffered from physical...

  15. 11 Conclusion: “Our People Will Survive”
    (pp. 192-200)

    This book has used interviews with Mexicanas from the town of Antonito to document their evolving ranching-farming culture. Through their food-centered life histories, they have described their past and present diet, relation to land and water, gender roles in provisioning and cooking, and family and community relations surrounding commensality. Mexicanas have spoken throughout this book and unveiled how “one little thing brings out another one,” as Helen Ruybal said—how one thought about food can lead to extensive reflections on life.

    In the last of our seventeen interviews, when she was ninety-five years old, Helen said, “There are different kinds...

  16. APPENDIX 1 Topics in Food-Centered Life Histories
    (pp. 201-202)
  17. APPENDIX 2 Categories of Analysis
    (pp. 203-204)
  18. APPENDIX 3 Population of Antonito, Conejos County, and Colorado, 1880–2000
    (pp. 205-206)
  19. APPENDIX 4 Wild Plants Used for Food or Healing in the Antonito Area
    (pp. 207-210)
  20. NOTES
    (pp. 211-226)
  21. GLOSSARY OF SPANISH TERMS
    (pp. 227-230)
  22. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 231-246)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 247-254)